The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women's Rights and Woman's Sphere

By Jeanne Boydston; Mary Kelley et al. | Go to book overview

6.
Harriet Beecher Stowe: "My Heart's Blood"

HARRIET BEECHER STOWE struck one note of unequivocal darkness in a letter filled with the light and shadows of her life. Writing Eliza Cabot Follen in December 1852, the "mother of seven children" mourned the death of "the most beautiful and the most loved" of her children who had been lost to cholera three years earlier. Only then, she said, had she "learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her." She recalled that her prayer had been "that such anguish might not be suf fered in vain."1 That anguish informed and made powerful Stowe's signal contribution to the antislavery movement. Although the landscape of Uncle Tom's Cabin is littered with slavery's victims, none is more charged with significance than the "poor slave mother," none more invested with "anguish." Threatened with separation from her son, the "soft and timid" Eliza cries, "They have sold you! but your mother will save you yet!" Eliza succeeds, but other mothers are unable to prevent the ultimate loss. Told that her infant has been sold, Lucy is silent. "The shot," Stowe informs her readers, "had passed too straight and direct through the heart, for cry or tear." Just as silently, Lucy drowns herself. Having already lost a son and a daughter, Cassy is forced to become the agent of her own grief: "I had made up my mind,--yes, I had. I would never again let a child live to grow up!" She gives her third child laudanum and watches as "he slept to death."2

Although Stowe's opposition to slavery was galvanized by the institution's impact upon the family, there were other sources that influenced both her posture and her expression of it in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The most immediate was the body of legislation known as the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act, a more stringent law mandating the forcible seizure and rendition of slaves who had fled the South. Legally required to provide assistance in the pursuit of slaves, Northerners found themselves more deeply implicated in the institution. Compliance constituted support of slavery, defiance made one subject to

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